Controversial teacher pay and tenure bill passes Florida Senate

03/10/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Last year former governor Charlie Crist vetoed a bill doing away with teacher tenure and linking teacher pay to student test scores. The state Senate passed a modified version of the bill today, and the governor is almost certain to sign it into law.

Supporters say it’s a much needed – if imperfect – kick start to education reform. Opponents say it places student success squarely on the shoulders of teachers. Senate Bill 736 passed pretty much along party lines. The exceptions were Democrat Gary Siplin of Orlando, who voted for it, and Lakeland Republican Paula Dockery who voted against it. Sarasota-area Senator Mike Bennett, a Republican, said passing the controversial reform is better than the status quo.

"We're failing. If we don't adopt the types of changes that we're trying to do here in Senator Wise's bill we will continue to do the same thing time after time after time. We have to hold people accountable."

Earlier this year the publication Education Week rated Florida’s public education system fifth in the nation for 2010 – that’s up from 8th place the prior year, and 14th in 2008. The bills’ opponents say the state shouldn’t try to fix what’s not broken. The bill requires school districts to use student performance on tests as half of the criteria by which they assess teacher quality. Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, a Democrat from Sunrise, said Governor Rick Scott may be trying to run the state like a business, but a one-size-fits-all policy won’t work.

"Teachers and students aren't just widgets coming off the assembly line that you can run through a quality control department and definitively label them as satisfactory or unacceptable. They're human beings."

Senate Bill 736 would allow schools to fire new teachers without cause. Senator Eleanor Sobel, a Democrat from Hollywood, said the bill is piecemeal and not based in reality.

"There is no conclusive evidence whatsoever that merit pay will lead to higher student achievement."

She cited a recent Vanderbilt University study suggesting higher teacher pay doesn’t impact test scores. Besides, she said, the tests that would be used statewide starting in 2014 have yet to be developed. Sobel said creating and implementing them would heap an unfunded mandate onto local school districts.

"Where will the state get the money to reward highly effective teachers especially in light of the shortfalls and proposed education cuts? 'Race to the Top' federal funds will run out. That is a fact."

While opponents say the bill will cause Florida to hemorrhage young teachers and repel others from coming to the state, proponents say it will attract those who are truly motivated to educate. Miami Senator Anitere Flores called the current teacher pay schedule an injustice.

"That young teacher, someone that's just starting, they want to come in and they want to change the world in their classroom. They come in there, they make miracles, their students learn, everyone's doing so much better. Their taking the worst of the worst and they drastically improve those students. We tell that teacher, 'this is what your reward is. You're going to get paid by our salary schedule right now an extra hundred or two hundred bucks this year. And stick around with us for the next ten or fifteen years because in ten years we're going to pay you more.'"

Paula Dockery, the sole Republican in her chamber to oppose the bill, said the real injustice is the economic disparity among families throughout Florida. Dockery said, yes, every child is capable of learning, but some home environments better lend themselves to student success than others.

"A child who comes from a family whether it be a one parent or two parent family, who urges that child to do well in school and who helps that child with homework and who's electricity is on in their home and who is actually in a structured home and not living in a van or whatnot, that that child has an advantage. The child that has that security of a good home and electricity and a parent who cares has an advantage over a child that doesn't."

During the debate, Dockery and other opponents admitted the bill would pass no matter what they said. Stephen Wise, the Jacksonville Republican who sponsored the bill, is a former teacher. He said Florida’s recent high education ranking belies the fact that the graduation rate of African-American males is extremely low compared to other groups. He said he thinks the bill would attract quality teachers up for the challenge of changing that.

"This bill ought to be a teacher's dream. To be able to get paid for student's success. Not how they did on the FCAT, but on the progress the student made."

Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements said that bill would do the opposite, especially when you consider that would allow a school to fire a teacher without due process.

"You could have the best teacher in a school. The most effective, the most successful teacher in the school that everybody knows is just doing a phenomenal job in getting student success in learning and that teacher can still be fired for no cause throughout their entire career."

The Hillsborough County School District is receiving a $100 million Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant to help it develop its own student and teacher assessment criteria. Clements said the tests are years in the making. Senate Bill 736 gives the state three years to develop tests for the same purpose. In Clements’ view, the state is jumping the gun.

"Why would you not sit back, support what we're doing and allow time for us to find the problems, the mistakes, revamp."

The bill is expected to hit the house floor during a marathon session next week. It’s expected to pass there and the governor has already said he’d sign it. Clements said Florida teachers won’t give up any time soon.

"We know how to work with troubled children. We know how to work with difficult learners. Clearly we have a lot of folks in Tallahassee who fall into that category right now so we will not give up trying to educate them."

Previous WMNF news coverage of education reform

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